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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
March 2019

Unity on the Bay banks cash for early off-site move

SUnity_1ofia Yanez-Malik is used to things being torn down. The IHOP restaurant where she waitressed soon after she met her first late husband has been torn down. So, too, was the office building where she once worked.

Indeed, during the past 18 years she has lived in, worked in, or visited Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood, Yanez-Malik has seen a lot of buildings razed and replaced with towering high-rises or turned into vacant lots. Still, she admits she tears up when she thinks about the eminent destruction of Unity on the Bay, a two-acre church campus that includes a church auditorium built in the late 1950s and two 102-year-old houses.

“It’s full of memories, full of different stories,” she sighs. But while she’s sad to leave Unity on the Bay, Yanez-Malik is looking forward to her congregation’s future home. “The community will remain strong, no matter where we go,” she says.

For the past six decades, Unity Church has been holding services, lectures, and Sunday school classes at NE 21st Street and N. Bayshore Drive, just across the street from Biscayne Bay. Its temporary home will likely be Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue that has been at 137 NE 19th St. since 1928.As of late February, church leaders don’t know where their next permanent home will be.

In addition, the church must move out by the end of March, sooner than expected, admits Christopher Jackson, Unity on the Bay’s senior reverend. “We moved into third gear,” Jackson says. “They [the new owners] already have construction trailers over here.”

Unity_2On February 2, Mill Creek Residential closed on a $29.9 million deal to purchase Unity on the Bay’s two acres. It plans to build a 28-story, 296-unit tower called Modera Biscayne Bay. The structure, designed by Corwil Architects, will also have 11,000 square feet of retail space, an eight-story parking garage, a rooftop pool deck, a dog park, and even a theater room.

Those plans include demolition of the post-World War II church and the two World War I-era mansions that are now on site.

The purchase follows five years of negotiations between Unity and Mill Creek Residential, a company headquartered in Dallas that has built six Modera-branded towers in Miami-Dade. Initially, Mill Creek and Unity agreed on a $29.6 million price. However, Mill Creek offered an additional $300,000 if the church would move out by March instead of September, Jackson confirms.

Peter Jakal, a spokesman for Mill Creek, says the company is “working closely with the church.” According to a February 4 article on The Real Deal website, Mill Creek is interested in breaking ground “in the first half of this year.”

Joel Rodriguez, an Edgewater real estate broker, says Mill Creek is an “institutional builder” known for constructing apartment buildings all over the United States, which are then usually sold to insurance groups or real estate investment trusts.

“I think it’s a great site,” Rodriguez says. “[Mill Creek] did a great job in identifying the opportunity. It’s going to have fine waterfront views.”

Unity_3The Edgewater neighborhood has seen explosive growth in recent years. Since 2013, developers have invested at least $605.6 million snatching up Edgewater land, according to the South Florida Business Journal. And since 2003, more than two dozen high-rises have either been built, are under construction, or are proposed in Edgewater, which is roughly bounded by NE 15th Street in the south to NE 36th Street in the north, and from Biscayne Bay to NE 2nd Avenue.

In the process of growing rapidly, several landmarks from the early 20th century were demolished. Icon Bay replaced the 1916-era Bliss House. And an apartment complex that housed the 1800 Club, a popular bar for journalists and politicians, was replaced by the 1800 Club condominium.

One attempt to incorporate a historic structure into a modern high-rise went horribly wrong. Developer Dan Kodsi tried to preserve the 1920s-era home that was featured in the 1998 film There’s Something About Mary and use it as a restaurant for his 47-story Paramount Bay condo. But the house was torn down following a tragic 2008 crane accident that killed two construction workers and injured four.

The two-story, 11-room Eastwood House (which was used as office space by the church) and neighboring Cameron House (which hosted Sunday school classes) are relics of a time when Edgewater was a winter retreat for the wealthy. Both houses were built in 1917 by John Henry Eastwood, owner of a New Jersey wire and chemical manufacturing plant. Back then the Cameron House was a horse stable and carriage house.

The structures managed to survive the infamous 1926 hurricane that devastated Miami and Miami Beach. It was also during that year May Stoiber arrived in Miami. Stoiber was a reverend in the Unity Church, an outgrowth of the New Thought spiritual movement founded in the 1880s in Missouri. In 1927, Stoiber set up a Unity Center for Practical Christianity in a private home just a block away from Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Between 1931 and 1949, the Unity center moved three times within the City of Miami. Finally, in 1955, with a congregation of more than 1000, Unity bought the old Eastwood estate for $81,000 and spent another $225,000 building a new church.

Unity on the Bay’s membership dwindled during the 1960s and 1970s, when Edgewater was a crime-ridden, impoverished neighborhood. The church was vandalized, and its pastor at the time, Bill Cameron, was once robbed at gunpoint during a collection.

Unity_4Unity on the Bay revived in the 1990s during the tenure of the Rev. James Trapp. The church became popular with nightlife denizens in search of salvation, and they filled the pews.

Today most of the 800 or so congregants who visit Unity on the Bay come from all over South Florida, Jackson says, including Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Aventura. As for Edgewater’s residents, many of them are young professionals from Venezuela, says Yanez-Malik. “It used to be like [middle] class,” she explains. “Now they have money here.”

And while Jackson says the church’s finances are in the black, maintaining the church, the Eastwood House, and Cameron House has been a drain on church coffers. So in 2013 the church explored the possibility of selling its parking lot to a developer.

“At the time, if you had said to anybody [in the church] that we were selling the property outright, they would have said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Jackson recalls.

That opinion shifted over the years, Jackson explains, and eventually the congregation was unanimously in favor of selling the church and finding a new home.

“I’m not saying that some people don’t have trepidation, but I don’t know of anybody who is angry within the church,” Jackson says. “I think everybody gets that it was time to do this.”

For one thing, neither the 1950s-era church auditorium nor the century-old houses were conducive to church use, especially in the 21st century. “It wasn’t designed as a public area to begin with,” Jackson explains. “And now, with the direction the church is moving, where everything has to be multipurpose, no one can afford the luxury of an auditorium with fixed seating, which is what we have. So our intention is to create something more state of the art, portable, flexible, to move us into the future.”

Eddie Dominguez, president of the Unity on the Bay board, says he expects an agreement with Temple Israel will soon be finalized that will allow the church to hold services and programing at the synagogue. After that, Dominguez suspects, Unity will continue holding services at Temple Israel on Wednesdays and Sundays for the next year or so while a new permanent home is found. (Temple Israel holds services on Fridays and Saturdays.)

“We’re currently looking at properties. It could be anything from a renovation to new construction,” says Dominguez, who works as the director of communications and marketing for City National Bank and is the former executive editor of the Daily Business Review.

That search is in the earliest stages, Dominguez says, adding that “it will be south of Aventura and north of Little Havana.”

Scott Brockman, executive director of Temple Israel, says once an agreement has been signed, Unity Church can stay as long as it needs. “There’s a long history of the two congregations [Temple Israel and Unity Church] doing cross programing,” Brockman says. The Unity Church-Temple Israel partnership includes mindfulness meditation programs, as well as activities for interfaith families.

Sofia Yanez-Malik, who also leases space in the Eastwood House to teach voice lessons, says she’ll miss the old church. “This is a unique place,” she says. “Probably all of us will miss it, to have the bay so close by.”

The fact that it’s a house, she adds, is what made visitors feel at home.

But with the house and church sold, Jackson is left to figure out what to do with Unity on the Bay’s belongings, including spiritual books from the church’s shuttered bookstore. “We have to do an inventory,” he says, “to decide what we’re taking and what stays behind.”

 

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